An Under Examined Now: New Orleans

 

A friend told me New Orleans was exactly my kind of place. A different friend described New Orleans as completely debauched. I think one was referring to the city’s reputation for music history and food and the other was talking about drunken toplessness. He compared it to Vegas where too many people are trying too hard to do something regrettable. He did however give New Orleans credit in that while Vegas is a plaster imitation of a million other somewhere elses, New Orleans is in fact a real place all its own.

I had in my head, thanks to history books and too many movies, an image of a place a lot like Philly, having an old colonial feel topped off by a few decades of industrial decay, just with more of a swing than a beat- and wrought iron balconies. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t completely wrong. I would have been all the way right if I hadn’t overestimated New Orlean’s ability to deliver filth. With everything I had heard about Katrina and Bourbon Street, combined with what I experienced in Philly, I expected a little bit more disaster than I got.  While there was plenty of graffiti accented by dead palm fronds, there were no piles of trash blowing down the sidewalk. Philly keeps its filthiest title.

The whole place looks like it used to be green, was then grown over in black mold, and finally scrubbed hard with bleach. The result is a faded green and white streaked with grey black echoing the Spanish moss that hangs from trees outside of town. There aren’t as many trees in town, and they are strung with beads not moss.

When I got there it was surprisingly quiet. There were people around, places were open, but I got the feeling the whole city was resting up, waiting for something to happen later. There were bright colored bits of cloth left torn and strewn over everything. Formely glossy green gold and purple beads hung from tree branches and balcony railings and rainbow flags mixed in regularly with the flour de li. It was like the whole city was experiencing a post drag show hangover. Like something wild and just a touch trashy had already happened, it was sure to happen again, but everyone needed a nap first.

Crossing a grassy median by the trolley tracks I stepped over a pile of discarded casino chips. It was a small pile of Harra’s disks in purple yellow and green. I am not now nor have I ever been a gambler, so as I kept walking past that stash I simultaneously wondered if I had just passed a pile of redeemable money, how one might redeem a pile of found chips, and how badly I would get mocked if I went to Harra’s and tried. Wondering if it was worth a try I noticed an old woman who looked like money walking a miniature dog past a homeless man, and just past the homeless man was a hipster.

Actually they were two, not one- a couple. He with his horn rimmed glasses and beanie, her with a lemon yellow bob and septum piercing, neither of which alone make a hipster, but I saw them navigating by phone, not taking pictures of pretty houses, which could only mean Yelp. I have made it a best practice to follow tattooed millennials who are navigating on foot via Yelp. It is how I have found some of my best meals. On this occasion they were right and so was I.

They were indeed finding food and it was better than good. My first instinct would be to say that the Turkey and the Wolf is not what would be considered New Orleans cuisine, but it is there, and I’ve never had buffalo sauce deviled eggs topped with chicken skin ‘cracklins’ anywhere else, so I would have to say my first instinct was wrong. My second instinct was to order said eggs as well as the shredded lamb gyro drowned in dill. My second instinct did not disappoint. I may have been the only one Instagramming the houses out on my walk but everyone at lunch posted their meal. That includes me.

There were no hipsters at Cochon, and the fact that Google maps had it listed as existing at all made me worry just a little. But it was the closest restaurant to the hotel that wasn’t a hotel restaurant and it was going completely ignored by the tourists who were in town for Wrestlemania, which I saw as a good sign so I went in. I sat at the chef’s counter right in front of the wood burning oven. The chef’s counter is where you sit so you can see your food being made and hear the chef yell unintelligible things to everyone in the kitchen and then they all shout back in unison “yes chef”. You see people scurrying about doing menial things like washing plates, hauling flour and stoking an oven till chef rings a little bell and slides a plate of edible art onto a counter where a less sweaty person picks up the plate for delivery. The waiter described dish Cochon as pulled pork that is formed into a patty, lightly breaded then pan seared. It was good but it was the eggplant soufflé that made me want to shout “yes chef”. I did not expect to like it but the waiter suggested it. and he was right.

Food is everywhere in New Orleans. It is in every little corner shop, in the balconies. In the river, the ocean- everywhere. I had stuffed flounder at Adolfo’s, oysters at Felix’s, boudin and meat pies at Bourree, lime seared chicken at Cane & Table, shrimp etouffee at Galatoire’s, beignet at Café Du Monde, and crawfish at some side of the road place where the guy at the register had to speak through one of those little devices throat cancer survivors use to sound like a robot. They were all worth it in all the ways that matter. No, they are all worth it in all the ways that exist. It is a city where- when it comes to food- no matter how you roll the dice you win. It is telling that in all the days I was there in all the miles I walked or drove, I only saw one McDonalds and never saw a Target. I did see a Bubba Gump, which made me remember that Office episode where Michael’s favorite NY pizza spot is Sbarro’s. Because I’m much more Dwight than Michael I kept walking.

 

Despite it being a Wednesday. I had to weave and squeeze my way around revelers and wanderers down the blocks off Jackson Square. In full disclosure those streets are quite narrow so they aren’t the hardest thing to fill, but the rows of second story balconies packed with people give those streets a gauntlet quality that could be either exciting or terrifying, depending on the person- or people I suppose if you consider both the walkers and the balconers. I enjoyed it. It is a place that feels like a place. The quiet from earlier in the day was gone replaced by jazz.

I’m calling it jazz despite my not really knowing a way to define that genre- but there were plenty of trumpets, tubas, clarinets, and upturned hats or buckets sitting on the curb waiting for tips. Whatever an actual authority might call it, it was mostly upbeat and made walking down a street of strangers feel a bit like a party. No. It felt like multiple parties all squished together. One party was being led by a slightly tubby 20 year old doing covers of 70’s funk songs accompanied by a weathered Al Green doppelganger. Next door, and this part was a surprise to me, was country music. Stepping into an almost empty bar I was initially disappointed to hear a twangy voice slowly whining over an acoustic guitar. I was a little intrigued when I looked on stage to see that noise coming from a black man. As I stared in wonder, a little bit in horror, I realized I knew the song. It was “pictures of You by the Cure. I was witness to a black man singing a country version of a Cure song.  I was amazed, a little impressed, but definitely didn’t want to stay to hear that. One more door down was a full swing band crammed into a very small corner. The sound was great, thumping bass line and quick fingered clarinet, but 20 year olds in fedoras and zuit suits made the place feel a little to costume party for my tastes. Which was fine because there was another bar with another band right next door. This one had a steel guitar and organ and a 40 year old white man singing about bringing a loaded gun to the door to chase off salesmen. I appreciated what he was doing but his voice sounded explainey more than singy and no where near whaling or soulful. The place that finally made me linger was an ensamble that looked like an “all ages” chess club, or maybe like a tech company kick ball team, but they played like I thought the city should sound without looking too kitschy.

Just about an hour’s drive up the Mississippi there is a row of preserved plantations popular with chartered tours and wedding receptions. Facing right up to the big river and backed by sprawling fields of sugar cane are the sorts of palaces fantasized about in Gone with the Wind or any other antebellum story. There you find the real life relics that inspired those post war un reconstructed ideas. Oak Alley aptly named with a long arched tunnel of Oak limbs flanking a path leading to bright white columns encasing a genteel two story wrap around porch is right off the road. One mile up river is another called Evergreen, and then there is Laura, and St. Joseph. They are all landscaped to photographic perfection with clean and quaint gift shops selling cook books and hoop skirts. Lousiana isn’t unique in this. After all, the real Terra is in Atlanta and Mt. Vernon is above all else, celebratory. I have been on house and ground tours in Virginia, Savannah, Charleston, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and they all do things pretty much the same. They dress up like the white people who owned the place and tell wonderful stories of rags to riches mercantilism, explain the furniture, and then they laud the family’s contributions to the community through the 1930’s or 60’s when the last spinster descendent turned the estate over to a preservationist trust so we could all enjoy the rich history that lives in this beautiful place.

Then there is the Whitney.

Historically the Whitney is exactly like all the others. It too started with a colonists dream built into a business then handed down as a family palace. Its history is no different than Monticello, the Hermitage, or all its neighbors along the big river but it is fundamentally, foundationally, spiritually, different from all of them today.

I have been to Monticello and been told on the house tour that Mr. Jefferson had trouble getting a good cook to stay in the house. I was told a story of how Jefferson made a great investment in his chef’s French training only to have said chef skip town once back in America. There was no mention that this was because the chef was a slave and slaves didn’t like being slaves. Nor was there mention of this slave being related to the master’s family by blood and I was informed that this was scandalous rumor that couldn’t be proven- despite the fact that a Pulitzer prize winner had recently done just that.

I was told another tale at the home of Andrew Jackson where great honor is given to a grey haired old black man who when given his freedom, decided to stay on the plantation. The tour gave no room for questioning why.

But I have also been to Buchenwald in Germany.

Buchenwald was a concentration camp built by Nazi Germany as part of the final solution. After its liberation by Allied armies the local Germans were made to tour the facility. It was thought important that those who may not have been directly responsible, though perhaps complicit, be brought face to face with the realities of genocide and death. Today the camp is open as a museum and memorial to those who suffered and or died there.

That is the Whitney Plantation.

There was no talk there of confederate bravery or Nazi scientific precision, just honesty and reverence for the black people who suffered and or died-for the sole purpose of making some white people rich. It was not really about blame- though it was honest and fair in a way that those other houses have never been, nor was the prevailing feeling one of hate or revenge.

I have been to DC and stood at the Vietnam memorial, a large wall listing the names of the dead, and it feels sacred. At the Whitney there is a similar memorial listing names of black people who suffered-and or died-as slaves just in Louisiana. It lists double the number of names as the wall in DC (57,939 vs 109,200) and felt to me at least as powerful.

And then there are those statues.

In the little chapel, and out in the wooden shacks, are black children cast in bronze. Their visible presence is an unavoidable reminder of who lived in these homes and why. They are haunting. But they aren’t just blank recreations of what might have been, these children have names. And they have stories. In the 1930’s the federal government sent out employees with recording equipment to capture the stories of those old people who were alive back in slave times. The statues are those people, portrayed at the age they would have been when emancipated. The result is not just a bunch of kid statues, but real people whose stories you can know and stand and hear while looking at them standing or sitting in the location where they were born- meant to suffer and or die to make some white family rich. There is no such thing at other houses.

But what struck me the most, or hit me the hardest, was a bell.

Bells were normal on plantations and they were rung for several reasons. They rang to call everyone in from the field, or for lights out, or as a call to gather to witness someone being punished. The Whitney has such bells. The Whitney also has something else other plantations don’t really have- black visitors. I have stood in several crowds of German, Japanese, or French people at dozens of historic plantations- but what I had never done before was be in such a place standing next to black people. Outside of minors who were bussed to such places on field trips or the awkward bridesmaid whose white sorority sister opted for a genteel plantation wedding, I had not known black people to visit the location of their ancestor’s torture.

But at the Whitney I witnessed a tour guide tell of the old ringing of plantation bells with the explanation that now they choose to ring them in honor of the memory of black people who once lived there, and then I watched a young black mother send her little black son up to pull the rope. When the bell rang I lost my mind. My head stopped thinking and I started feeling. My eyes welled up, my breathing caught short and I had to walk away. I didn’t just see and know things right then, I felt them.

There is meaning in that.

And then I left that place and went a mile down the road to another such house where the guide proudly showed me the plantation owner’s signature on multiple loyalty pledges where he had duplicitously promised not to fight against the United States in the civil war any more. The guide chuckled when he also showed me the list of battles this plantation owner fought in after breaking those promises. There was no mention of black people other than to brag that after emancipation most of the slaves chose to stay. He had no answer as to who those black people were or why they made that so called “choice”.

 

And that is New Orleans.

It is an old city with much of its story sinking in mud both real and figurative. I t is a place where bad things happened and happen. It is the kind of place where despite all of those things or maybe because of them, people choose not to focus but drench themselves in bourbon and beads. The music swings loud, the food is full of flavor, and they dance at funerals.

The city is turning 300 years old this year which is “founding fathers” old in American years and all this time the crescent city has been its own kind of place with its own story. More than any other city this one is the story of France, Spain, the Huma and Choctaw- and Africa. And then the United States, Haiti, and the Confederacy. All the while Andrew Jackson waves his hat triumphantly in the square and goes mostly ignored. The crowds that mill around are more interested in Café Dumond’s beignets or the buskers on the corner. They are not really looking into the city’s history, unless maybe on a ghost tour, which is less about what happened then and more about what sort of then still haunts now. Which is appropriate because now is haunted by then so much more than the crowds appear to want to know. Though in all fairness the crowds only appear to want to know bourbon and brightly colored beads.

The party is so loud and constant that you sense it has and will always be going on and consequentially the place is celebrated but only shallowly considered. Maybe that is changing just a little, they did after all take down a statue or two,

but I don’t really know.

I don’t live here.

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Texas Toast: and brisket

When asked about food I easily fall into an oft repeated diatribe against chain restaurants. Occasionally I wonder if I am being unfair. But then I remember that I have not once, not ever, seen a pickup unloading stacks and stacks of mesquite logs at a Chili’s, or T.G.I. Friday’s, or any other of those other places that list “smokehouse” items on their menus.

So when I recently visited Texas I did not eat at Texas Roadhouse, but rather my brother took me to an actual Texas roadhouse.

Ribs and brisket, side of slaw, potato salad. The food was great, the company was even better (because it was my brother), and while we comfortably ate outside in November, two guys were adding mesquite logs to the stacks that surrounded the building. At the Pit Room in Houston, the wood decor isn’t decor, it is fuel for the fire. No shtick, just barbecue.

So moving forward, should you want to know how I feel about eating out, just know that I no longer have any reservations about my explicit, overt, stated-up-front, bias against those share-holder liable staples of mall parking lots nation wide with their dispassionate standardized menus and liquid smoke injected ribs.

Taste in Provo: a compliment despite my best efforts

I have never been kind to Provo. I have no intentions of changing my attitude or moving there ever, but gosh darn-it if Provo doesn’t keep serving me up surprises.

Good surprises.IMG_8695

Not that I recommend anyone visit that city, but if you do, go to Taste.

They make, and sell, chocolate. Good chocolate.IMG_8778

Surrounded by pseudo French styled decor you can sidle up to the bar for an $8 chocolate and balsamic tasting. Or you could spend just a touch more for  afternoon tea, Friday night chocolate and cheese pairings, or, because of where you are, non-alcoholic wine.

I am a bottom dweller so I ponied up 8 bucks.IMG_8735

For that I got a square of 6 different chocolates, 3 balsamics , and a taste of the stuff Nutella is trying to be. The chocolatier explained as we went a long what it was we were eating and the process of its production.IMG_8760By far the best was called Karamelizalt Levendulaviragok Csillaganizsos Tejcsokoladeban. Those are real words. I didn’t make that up. This stuff won a silver medal at the Academy of Chocolate and it is the only milk chocolate I like- because it also has caramelized lavender and anise- and my heart. It also has my heart.IMG_8771What I walked away with is this stuff made in Portland called Pok Pok Som. It is a drinking vinegar with ginger and I think I swooned.

Swooned? In Provo?

Aw-shucks.IMG_8749

Men and Food:the premise of too many televison shows.

The premise of the show is a guy, maybe two of them, who travel around eating at various locations. Anthony Bourdain, Guy Fieri, a sub plot in Master of None, or the main plot in The Trip, they are all the same show, and they are incredibly cliche’.

Just like me.

I suppose it is better to live those shows than CSI.

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Claremont, CA
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Giordano’s in Chicago
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Pink’s, L.A.
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Al’s, Chicago
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Portland, ME

 

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New Hampshire
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Death Valley, CA
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San Jose, CA
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Off some road in Vermont
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Inglewood, CA
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San Francisco, CA
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Big Sur, CA
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Back of a van, VA
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Washington D.C.
theguys
Brohammas back yard in Phila, PA

In Search of Truth: the Donut Hole

These are times of trouble and contention, often exaggerated through online debate or trolling. While this rancor is deplorable I must admit I may have found myself growling and lurking beneath a digital bridge here and there. For example, about a week ago a friend lamented on Facebook that he was kept up at night perplexed at the injustice that while there exists chocolate covered donuts, there are no such things as chocolate covered donut holes.17191369_10154450887079071_6557449346783348749_n

He posted this as a statement of fact.

While I am no expert on donuts or pastries in general, his statement appeared unresearched and I found it hard to believe that such a culinary gap was the case. Perhaps chocolate covered donut holes were rare, but nonexistent? There is a whole wide world out there. How could anyone make such absolute statements without thorough investigation? Had he really been everywhere?

So I investigated.IMG_6540

A few Google searches and a couple phone calls later I rose up grunting and growling from under the bridge to confront my friend’s foolish statement. “You are wrong! You say they don’t exist but that’s wrong. I know where they are because I am smart and the internet gave me a different answer than yours so I win!” Having made my point so powerfully and with such fancy words, and exclamation points, I was a bit taken aback when despite my obvious victory a delegation was immediately assembled to investigate my claims.

The website said they stay open till 2AM so despite it being 9PM on a Thursday I was told a minivan was on its way to get me. We made it there in 20 minutes.

The Donut Hole in La Puente, CA is a perfect example of novelty design, kitsch, and everything the state of California stood for in the mid-20th Century. It is a giant drive-through donut. There may have been some way to access the place on foot but I couldn’t see it. Instead we drove that van right into the hole to find ourselves surrounded by well-lit glass cases and the sweet, wonderful, glorious, American obesity epidemic. Éclairs, maple bars, cronuts, and this giant glazed thing they called the Texan called out to us with the words “cash only”. We threw handfuls of cash out the window and in return received diabetes.IMG_6531

Along with all that sugar I was also served a half helping of crow. Over the phone, through admittedly broken English, I was promised chocolate covered donut holes. What I got was a pile of glazed donut holes drizzled with chocolate and sprinkles. It was decided that these did not perfectly match the original description and thereby did not represent evidence enough to contradict my friend’s original statement. I am of course a gracious man and accepted that I had not proven my point, but my friend was unwilling to be open to the idea that our failure did not in fact prove his. What an unreasonable ideologue. He was, and dare I say still is, so entrenched in his unfounded and unproven beliefs that he is not open to the idea that alternate philosophy may refute his. No. He would not bend.

He demands proof.

Please send proof to brohammas@gmail.comIMG_6542

 

Solvang: mancation IV

Solvang is a little town in Southern California that pretends to be in Denmark. It was founded around 1900 by Danish immigrants who liked sunshine more than snow, but apparently still wanted windmills, wooden shoes, and Hans Christian Andersen.img_1345This is made “apparent” because if you go there today what you will find is windmills, wooden shoes, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Most people would describe it as cute more than quaint, and in concept it is simply odd- but in execution it is surprising in its level of commitment to a theme. It isn’t like there is just a main street with similar facade, the imitation game goes multiple blocks long and deep.img_1324They have bakeries and gift shops, a town square with a scaled reproduction of Copenhagen’s round tower, a mermaid statue, and a museum dedicated to Mr. Christensen and his fairy tales.img_1327

 

All of that is fine. Very nice. Whatever.

Th real reason to go there is because this place called the Succulent Cafe has hands down the best charcuterie and cheese platter I have ever experienced.

Go there. Eat it. Wear some clogs, have two blonde braids, read about a princess and a pea, or show up on a Harley, any of those things… just make sure you have what they call the 4+4 for $44. (four cheeses, four meats, and a whole bunch of great little nuts, peppers, spreads, jams, olives, etc.)img_1349

 

Sea of Sweet: I have no idea what that stuff is but it works

So there is this place in Rancho Cucamonga, CA (yes that is an actual place), where all diets go to die.I would describe it as a middle eastern creperie that specializes in calories. Like, Olympic levels of calories.img_8538

The place looks harmless, like some suburban strip mall afterthought, but do not be fooled. The Nutella double chocolate Twix crepe will send you to a joyful early grave.

But that is just for the average “I want extra helpings of the sugar I know” palate. They have other stuff too. For instance, if you want to overdose in calories derived from things that should otherwise be healthy, you can indulge in any one of their fruit cocktails.img_0134

This thing took ten days to build, not because they are slow, but because the guy behind the counter just kept stuffing things into that glass.

Then there is this stuff I had never heard about called “ashta”. I would describe it as something in between heavy cream and cottage cheese. Apparently it can be turned into ice cream, like a less-sweet vanilla, and then be piled on top of a crepe then sprinkled with rose water, then dusted with pistachio and then drowned in honey, then devoured by me.img_8602

I saw behind the counter they have baklava, and dates, and every combination of phyllo dough stuffed with sweet stuff imaginable and I want all of it.

It is a bad thing that I found this place. Curse you JJ. Curse you.

Commissary: food and table tennis

Dining inside a greenhouse situated next to a pool on the balcony of a hotel is one of the most L.A. things I have ever done. Add to that the fact that we ordered a shrimp po’ boy and a curry for brunch and the L.A. meter just explodes.commissary

the Commissary is a Roy Choi project located on the pool deck of the Line hotel in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. It fancies itself as a bridge between different socio-economic strata. I fancy it as delicious.foodatcommissary

I would say the po’ boy was run of the mill. The green curry with lemongrass was worth the drive.kayatCommissaryThe company was unmatched, but unless you call me I cannot vouch for your ability to replicate my standards. And by “match my standard” I mean a woman who insists you use the ping pong table on the balcony and when the ball goes flying over the edge she just sets down the paddle and walks away without a word.IMG_3404

SK Donuts & Croissant

A cronut is a doughnut made from croissant dough. It is deep fried, sugared, filled, glazed, and it is heaven in your mouth. The Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York invented the thing and trademarked it in 2013. I do not live in New York, and consequentially, I am in full endorsement of trademark infringement for the greater good.SKdonut

The cronut, and the bakery that spawned it, are rather high end, unlike my budget. S.K. Donuts is decidedly NOT high end and open 24 hours. Forget which end is in play here and just know that no matter what these things are legally named, you should eat one. Or seven.SKCronuts

I had one topped with Nutella and peanut butter, filled with cream. Topping anything with Nutella feels a little bit like cheating, but to stick with my extralegal theme here, I don’t care. It was great.SKdonutinside

The menu is always in flux but the quality is as reliable as the hours. It is worth a drive.

The Food is So Much Better Than the Name: Eggslut

Los Angeles is not a shy city, nor am I a shy guy, but something about this place makes me pause just a little when people ask for good places to eat in town. Especially when my 12 year old daughter asks where we are headed for lunch.

While I may pause, not only do I still go, but I encourage you to do the same.

Eggslut.IMG_2444 (1)

These folks have been featured everywhere. In Flight Magazine, every style or travel magazine in existence, and every food blogger alive has recommended Eggslut. So trendiness aside, because it is that, they have picked one singular food item, the egg, and just slapped it on everything worth eating, and it works.IMG_2544